Since that Glamour magazine editor’s quote hit the streets last week, yours truly has been swamped with e mails and Ask Afrobella questions. Like this one, yesterday!
Robin asks: Bella, Iâ€™m waiting on the corporate hair discussion. Iâ€™m in a rut with this issue as we speak. I am looking for a new job in Accounting but I am also letting my relaxer grow out. I have been either wearing twist outs, braids, or just slicked back into a ponytail. Many of my friends and fam insist that I should straighten it out before interviews. However, I donâ€™t think that I should be limited to straight hair in the corporate world neither am I particularly interested in working for a company that would have me conform this way. Iâ€™m looking for styles that arenâ€™t intimidating without having to conform and flat iron it into submission. Please Help!!
Lay the flat-iron down because help is on the way, Robin! But I must confess, I feel kind of like a fish out of water even addressing this. Here’s why.
I grew up in a country where I always saw men and women with natural hairstyles working in professional capacities. Maybe back in the Seventies when Rastafarianism seemed like a relatively new phenomenon, things were different. But as an Eighties baby in Trinidad, I grew up knowing teachers, shop clerks, my parents and siblings co-workers… natural hair never seemed like an impediment to a job, to me. My high school principal had a fro. My flyest high school teacher — shout out to Miss Stroud — wore a low ‘fro, and so did one of Trinidad’s coolest newscasters back in the day on Panorama. Minister Penelope Beckles wears her hair in a short afro style, and Trinidad’s Member of Parliament, Fitzgerald Hinds, has awesomely long and handsome locks. (If there is any hairstyle that’s been discriminated against in Trinidad, it’s dreadlocks. MP Hinds has retaliated against instances of ridiculous discrimination — like when St. Charles High School sent home a 12-year-old Rastafarian girl because of her hairstyle back in 2004. Hinds has also spoken eloquently before parliament, regarding the unfair and discriminatory practice of cutting off a Rastafarian’s locks when they are imprisoned).
So I never really thought natural hair in the workplace could be percieved as a politically motivated “no no.” The concept of everyone having to conform to a Eurocentric standard of “normal” hair and beauty never occurred to me, when it came down to getting a job. I assumed it was all about being smart and qualified enough.
When I was making the decision to go back to school for my MFA in creative writing, my most conservative friend was horrified. “You mean you don’t want to make money?” he gasped. Of COURSE I do — but I’m a creative girl who just never planned to work in a traditional office, is all. And I haven’t. The office I work in now is all about Casual Friday, every day. I have a co-worker who’s been known to wander the halls wearing a bathrobe over his clothes. Seriously. I typically wear jeans and a cute top to work, flats, and my hair can be as big and crazy as I want. Recently I wore it in a ponytail after months of wash n’ go ‘froliciousness, and my editor was like — what happened? Did you cut your hair? So I can’t speak from my personal experience about natural hair being regarded as anything less than acceptable. I wouldn’t want to work somewhere that made me feel any other way.
Because I couldn’t relate to these corporate mandates, I decided to ask the one person I knew who was in charge of hiring people. My dad. He’s a human resources manager, and he practically did a spit take when I called to ask him about this Glamour issue.
“How could you make a statment like that? So what, they think that everybody must wear false hair? Well I suppose that’s already happening – you see so many of these young girls with long hair that isn’t theirs, wearing it red and blonde…” he laughed. Then he turned serious. “But that is a highly explosive statement. Extremely ignorant. I have all kinds of employees, with all kinds of hair. We have people here who have shaved their heads as low as possible. That’s as natural as it gets, right? Then there are those who braid their hair – and either wear the natural braids or add in extensions. And there are some who just wear their hair naturally curly, like yours. Of course, if somebody comes in unkempt, looking like all kinds of things live in their hair, we wouldn’t consider them. But natural doesn’t mean unkempt, ungroomed, or unwashed. Maybe they’re so ignorant they think that. They need to realize that natural doesn’t mean you just wake up in the morning and go to work with your head looking crazy and all kinda-how. All of the women I know with natural hair — with afros — keep it clean, neat, and looking quite attractive,” said my dad. Exactly! My dad made another valid point — “There are all kinds of white women with thick and curly hair. Are they expected to straighten theirs, too?” Good question, Dad.
Let’s examine the original statement again. Remember, this was first quoted in American Lawyer magazine: “First slide up: an African American woman sporting an Afro. A real no-no, announced the ‘Glamour’ editor to the 40 or so lawyers in the room. As for dreadlocks: How truly dreadful! The style maven said it was ‘shocking’ that some people still think it ‘appropriate’ to wear those hairstyles at the office. ‘No offense,’ she sniffed, but those ‘political’ hairstyles really have to go.”
Note to this still-unnamed Glamour editor — Not every person who wears natural hair or dreadlocks is doing so for “political” reasons. Some people just love the way locks or afros look. Some people don’t have the time or the inclination to use chemicals to alter the structure and texture of their hair. Some people want a hairstyle that is effortless. Some wear locks for religious reasons. Also, isn’t it illegal to discriminate against people for reasons like this? If you get laid off and you think it’s because of your hairstyle, surely you could file an EEOC complaint, right? And surely some of the lawyers present had some insight as to that angle.
Personally, I’d imagine that having some employees who wear their hair in natural afrocentric hair styles is a good thing for any company — it reveals diversity, open-mindedness, and inclusion. That can’t be bad, can it? But I understand Glamour’s lack of knowledge. I assume most of the editors and employees aren’t women of color. And I’ve been asked extraordinarily dumb questions about my hair. I’ve gotten everything from “how do you get your hair to look like that?” (answer – it just grows this way) to “can I touch it,” (answer: no, I am not your personal Chia Pet), to “do you wash your hair?” Yup, a girl in college once actually asked me that. Her ignorance really astounded me, and I did respond rudely.
As someone who works in a super-flexible and atypical office environment, I had to ask someone with natural curls who worked someplace more corporate. And purely for convenience’s sake, I asked the girlfriend who came over for dinner last night. Meet Jessica.
She’s one of my closest friends. I’ve quoted her a few times on curly hair products (she loves the Garnier Soft Curl Cream), and finally, here’s a photo I ganked from her MySpace. She’s Jamaican and works for Sandals. In fact — there’s a photo of her, throwing a wedding bouquet somewhere in this flash intro.
Jess works in the corporate office, and recently someone was telling her that they prefer to pull back their curly hair into a tight ponytail or bun for the workplace. She admits that on super-corporate wearing-a-suit-for-a-business-meeting days, she pulls her hair back. But not every day, not by a long shot. “So why I must pull my hair back and get a headache every day? Cho. That’s some racist ish,” Jessica scoffed when we discussed this last night.
Now I hear you — Jessica’s hair is natural and can get big, but it isn’t curly like CURLY curly. Her hair might be seen as the “acceptable” mixed chick office curls. What do you do if you work in a super corporate environment and you’re transitioning? Or your hair is kinky and thick and in a fabulous fro, not curly and long?
Here’s my two cents — as long as your ‘do looks neat and clean, I’d assume it should be fine. You should always go to work looking and feeling poised, professional, calm, and collected. So Robin, if you work in an inflexible office and you’re transitioning and your hair’s looking puffy in front and distressing you, I’d say invest in some wide and comfortable headbands to pull your hair back during office hours. (note, I am NOT advocating daily use of headbands, and it’s REALLY important to make sure they’re comfortable. I’d say think cloth not plastic, think soft jersey, and stretch ‘em in the store to make sure they’ll fit well around your cabeza). I have a wide variety of hair bands and I switch up my look with accessories quite often. Sometimes I pull those crazy curls back with a banana clip.
If you’ve got locks or twists or braids and you don’t think you work in the kind of place that’s cool with that, invest in a pretty hair tie — holla at Brunsli or make your own — then keep those locks well-groomed and looking fly.
And if you’re going out on job interviews, and you show up looking professional and elegant, give great interview, and bring your A game… and STILL don’t get the job and think it’s because of your natural hair? Then stay on that job hunt. Your qualifications, expertese, talent, and smarts are what SHOULD matter in the workplace. Who wants to work for a company that won’t accept you for who you are?
This article, titled Black Hairstyle in the Workplace, says it all quite well. It ends on this note: “Katrina Williams, the New York management consultant, says she’s not interested in wearing braids to work anymore – they’re too time consuming to groom – but values her right to wear her hair as it grows naturally. “When it comes to, ‘This is my hair, natural,’ versus ‘Do I need to perm it?'” Williams said, “I just decided if people are looking at my natural hair and thinking it’s not professional, that’s not a place where I should be working, because they clearly have some discrimination issues.”
I definitely don’t think anyone should be restricted to wearing unnatural hair styles in the corporate world in order to be accepted, or to advance in the ranks. If a company won’t consider your qualifications over your coif, then I think they don’t deserve you as an employee. But my lack of experience with corporate environments makes me feel like I can’t truly offer an unbiased or truly informed perspective here. So I reach out to my bellas in the worlds of accounting, law, marketing, sales… making that paper in office cubes across the world. What have you noticed about the perception of natural hair in the workplace? What advice would you give Robin, or any other afrobella who’s entering the world of work with a natural do? What say you?
By the way, when I was looking for “professional afro” on Google, I came across this fascinating Japanese hair site — yup, people are going to hairdressers to get their naturally straight hair made into curly afros and dreads. Just goes to show you, the grass really is always greener on the other side.